5 reasons consumers will embrace artificial intelligence

Christmas 2017 was a busy one for retailers. During peak season, Amazon reported records for holiday shipping as they handled deliveries to 185 countries. UPS, meanwhile, said it was breaking records on package returns, having processed more than a million daily in December. With a 23 percent global growth in the last year, e-commerce continues to post solid performances, but stress and confusion are routine for merchants, logistics companies and consumers. According to a UK survey, over half of Christmas parcels failed to turn up on time in the run-up to Christmas, and parents panicked as popular Christmas toys sold out at the UK’s biggest retailers.

Artificial intelligence can help bring order to this chaos. Here’s how:

On-time or faster deliveries through AI

Delivery delays and out-of-stock items cause consumer frustration. Wouldn’t it be ideal if companies knew who was likely to buy what and when? Supply chain professionals could then make sure they had the right manpower, warehouse and transport capacities, or even send goods to be stored close to delivery addresses before we buy them (a process known as “anticipatory shipping”). Amazon has been experimenting with AI for years – for example in its cashier-less store – but other companies are close behind. Otto, a German e-commerce merchant, has created a system that analyses around 3 billion transactions and 200 variables, including sales data, website searches and weather information. With 90 percent accuracy, it is able to predict sales behaviour in the next 30 days. Now, the company purchases around 200,000 items a month without human intervention. Surplus stock has declined by a fifth and product returns by more than two million items a year. While customers receive their orders more promptly and efficiently, the planet benefits too, as fewer shipped packages need to be sent back.

Consumers get what they wish for

A major challenge in the supply chain is predicting next season’s hit products. Merchants have to make choices early on, and accept the risk that their stockpiled goods may not be bought. On the other side, consumers also have to hope that retailers have in stock what they want to buy. Supply-demand uncertainties and mismatches are costly and inefficient for all participants. Brand reputation is at stake, and consumers pay a higher price to cover the risk. One AI-powered approach is dubbed optimised line planning, which integrates data such as internal sales and customer records, competitive intelligence, trend analysis and social media preferences to create a customer profile or persona. This customer segmentation allows retailers to determine the selection of products that will resonate best with each persona. Designers can create placeholders for next season, and even calculate expected revenues. This provides confidence that both sales targets and the needs of the consumer will be met.

Goods travel safely

When supply-chain professionals know what is happening, they can ensure packages will arrive despite any adverse conditions. The Tel Aviv maritime data provider Windward says it is able, through AI, to predict shipping safety worldwide. The Israeli startup signed a deal with London-based insurance market Lloyd’s in November 2017, with Windward providing Lloyd’s member companies software that forecasts maritime hostilities or accidents at sea. Flextronics International – which counts Apple, Microsoft and Ford Motor as customers – has pioneered software that generates real-time alerts of supply-chain disruptions throughout its 14,000-strong network of global suppliers. The AI-based system helps predict actual and potential problems, such as supplier delays, strikes, earthquakes or tsunamis, and allows the relevant teams to make informed decisions to keep inventory moving and consumers happy.

Fewer goods are stolen

Some orders don’t arrive due to crime. The FBI estimates that cargo theft costs US businesses more than $30 billion each year. Facial recognition and the detection of suspicious behaviour can help prevent this. At the Chinese AI research company Yitu Technology, the pass cards of staff and visitors taking the lifts to floors 23 and 25 are read automatically – no swipe required – and each passenger is deposited at their specified floor, and only there. Cameras record everyone entering the building, and track them once they are inside. “Our machines can very easily recognise you among at least 2 billion people in a matter of seconds,” says Yitu co-founder and chief executive Zhu Long. Yitu’s generic portrait platform already contains 1.8 billion photographs of those logged in the national database and everyone who visited China recently. 320 million of the photos have come from China’s borders, where pictures are taken of everyone who enters and leaves the country. This cutting-edge technology can be used to protect any kind of asset – from vehicles to shops, to warehouses and even entire cities. In Boston, intelligent security cameras are even anticipating crime. The security system monitors feeds in real time and alerts authorities the moment it identifies unusual activity.

Quicker and better customer service

According to a survey conducted by Genesys in 16 key economies, the cost of poor customer service is estimated at $338.5 billion per year. Consumers disappointed when drivers don’t show up or products are sold out can still be satisfied when they can act based on timely and correct information. AI tools can speedily provide proper information to customer service staff, and improve customer-agent conversations without replacing them (chatbots have been shown to thus far lack empathy and problem-solving capability). At the same time, digital voice-activated assistants could provide an opportunity for progress – just imagine you ask: “Contact DHL and find out when my order will arrive,” and your digital assistant connects to a chatbot, finds the information and gets it to you promptly. The assistant would soon even be able to use your voice, if required. A paper published by Google in December 2017 reveals details of a text-to-speech system called Tacotron 2, which claims to be able to replicate near-human accuracy when imitating a person speaking.

These developments don’t come without risks. Concerns about job losses and out-of-control machines that have the potential to teach themselves are daily topics in the news. As AI-enabled robots have started to work alongside humans as autonomous vehicles, security cameras and digital assistants, some experts have said they should be fitted with an “ethical black box” to keep track of their reasoning, and enable them to explain their actions when accidents happen – such as the fatal self-driving car crash of a Tesla Model S in May 2016. Others think the behaviour of robots should be viewed similarly to that of humans, which often remains a mystery. While there are many voices urging caution, there are also positive ones. Stephane Kasriel, the CEO of Upwork, predicts “that there will not be a shortage of jobs in the future, but rather a shortage of skills to fill the jobs“. History has taught us that, over time, concerns with respect to new technologies will be addressed so that consumers can reap the benefits.

AI is on the rise and is sure to enter into many parts of our lives. Considering the impact it can have on consumer satisfaction, it would not be surprising if consumers not only embraced the intelligent supply chain but demanded more AI solutions in the purchasing process. Meanwhile, investors soon may no longer fund businesses that aren’t planning to incorporate AI in some form.

Image: Andy Kelly/Unsplash

This article was originally published at the World Economic Forum Agenda.

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3D-printing might not kill global trade after all. Here’s why

One of my biggest concerns are fears rooted in overhyped topics. Although I very much believe in the benefits of advanced technologies like 3D-printing, we need to be mindful about the risks we are taking by overstressing their impact on traditional sectors and in particular jobs. Of course 3D-printing will support – in combination with other technologies – distributed manufacturing and hence contribute to reshaping the supply chain but in a way which leaves clearly room for international trade and transport.

3dprint

Last year Adidas has opened its first 3D-printing plant for sports shoes – its highly automated, so-called ‘speedfactory’ – in Ansbach, a small town in Bavaria in the south-eastern part of Germany.

The German sports-goods company announced similar plans for Atlanta in the US, as well as other Western European markets. In the mid-run these factories will each manufacture half a million pairs of shoes per year.

3D-printing based production – also known as additive manufacturing – helps to bring factories closer to customers and products faster to the markets.

Traditional production can require a one-year process for design, sampling and large-scale manufacturing.

The new way requires, at its best, only days – reducing lead times on average by 66%. The shorter the cycle, the more retailers can place orders based on actual sales instead of estimates. Suppliers deliver what is really needed. Finally, consumers get what they want.

Eventually, consumers will be able to have goods produced by a printer near to them, ready for pick up, or have goods delivered, or printed at home, if a printer is available there.

It’s not all about speed

Distributed manufacturing is the name of the concept, and it reduces inventories and carbon footprints. In addition, 3D-printing makes very different and new product designs possible.

Unsurprisingly, companies like Adidas and Nike want to turbocharge their supply chains. The goal is to be short and fast.

But Adidas says that, in parallel to its speedfactory-based, short and fast supply chain, it will also expand its traditional, longer and slower supply chain.

1. The economics for 3D-printing-based mass manufacturing don’t yet work out.

Many experts doubt that they will in the foreseeable future either.

The unit costs for thousands of mass-produced, identical parts, like industrial components are still simply much lower than those manufactured by any other means.

3D-printing also falls short where natural fabrics like leather, cotton, wood and stone, or marble, granite, and minerals, such as rare earths, are needed – either to ensure the functionality of a product, or because they are just demanded by the customer.

Therefore, it might well be a myth that 3D-printing will replace mass manufacturing by mass customization, even in the midterm.

Adidas plans to grow its global athletic wear sales from $290 billion in 2017, to $355 billion in 2021. These additional sales will hardly be reached through the application of just one technology.

Reaching the target will require a mix of technologies and supply chains. Furthermore, moving the manufacture of all 301 million pairs of shoes Adidas produces each year to new sites – not even counting its double digit annual growth – would imply tremendous effort, cost and risk. The investment would be very high: just imagine the number of new speedfactories needed.

2. The technology works best for personalised goods

3D-printing generates significant value in the field of highly personalised goods and to meet demand for smaller quantities at affordable prices.

Parts can be printed on demand, obviating the need for storage.

Boeing deploys 3D-printed parts in jet engines and the technology could save the manufacturer $3 million in construction costs on each B787 jet it builds.

Deutsche Bahn has started to print spare parts to accelerate maintenanceprocesses.

Daimler uses 3D-printing to personalise parts and vehicles, and manufacture smaller batches for automotive customers.

In healthcare, 3D-printing applications range from brain and organ models, to personalised plaster casts and low-cost prosthetic parts. But an example for a global scale supply chain is lacking.

The opening of the speedfactory can be considered a Kitty Hawk moment in the history of additive manufacturing. It is an example of highly automated production in high labour cost countries.

But the most popular technologies currently used in 3D-printing were developed in the early eighties. We still might need to wait some time before we see the first mass-manufactured, 3D-printed jet plane taking off.

3. Personalisation changes the game – but not entirely

One in three consumers wants personalised products, a Deloitte study finds. And this trend will drive major change in global supply chains.

But Mark Zuckerberg still buys only one piece of cloth – a grey T-shirt, he wears every day – and so do millions of consumers.

One-colour sports shirts do not need to be manufactured at the place of consumption, as high-speed delivery is not a prerequisite for success. And this is valid for most long-lasting consumer goods, which represent the major part of today’s consumer demand.

Only designer goods and fashion require a high level of convenience, flexibility, speed and regularly changing models.

However, smart design enables personalisation by using mass-produced parts to produce a broad variety of different models. Different luxury bags of the same brand can be made of the same parts – just stitched together in different ways.

Postponement is another way to enable personalisation in mass-production: by dividing the manufacturing process into the two phases of manufacturing base products and then customising base products.

The base products are mass-manufactured, while finalisation happens in or close to the market.

Postponement pushes the finalisation of a product down to the end of the chain – for example, the colour and certain parts come last. This is a process commonly used in the automotive industry.

3D printing will complement this practice by enabling unique parts to be added at the end, while the base product will continue to be mass-manufactured in traditional ways.

4. Manufacturing technology and customer wants are not the only factors at play

Supply chains are shaped by many factors.

First, different supply chains – fast and slow, short and long – respond to different needs: from bringing resources to the factories near consumer markets, to moving parts through global value chains, to connecting the different players within industrial clusters.

Second, many external factors shape supply and value networks. Among these are geopolitical risks, the availability of skilled workers, the quality of infrastructure, tax considerations, the cost of land and energy, the time and effort to obtain licences.

Different locations have different capabilities, possibilities and brandings: ‘Made in Germany’, for example, is a unique feature, which can hardly be globalised.

These factors not only determine the design of global supply chains, but also the speed and magnitude at which technology-driven nearshoring can advance.

Third, the capacity to manage change and complexity is limited.

Changes can have huge implications – the workforce needs to be taken into account and assets might not have been written off or amortised yet.

Management needs time and energy to keep its focus on customers and markets and ensure the stability and smooth continuation of the business.

Fragmentation has its limits.

How many sites can a management team successfully manage in light of an increasingly complex and competitive business and operating environment?

Focus has major benefits; therefore, management will always seek a certain level of aggregation and concentration of activities and efforts at certain locations to ease the management burden.

Companies will continue to test new technologies and apply them where it makes sense.

3D-printing is one useful enabler to respond to customer needs and wants; an important tool for designers, operations and supply chain managers. The technology will surely further improve and so will other manufacturing technologies.

Long supply chains will still have their role to play. And so will international trade, which helps to keep diverse global production networks going.

In summary, 3D-printing holds high potential in those areas where it is a good fit. But, for now, its revolution has clearly not yet come.

This article was originally published at the World Economic Forum Agenda.

Is this the key to successful global trade?

“Logistics performance – both in international trade and domestically – is central to the economic growth and competitiveness of countries, and the logistics sector is now recognized as one of the core pillars of economic development.”
Key2Trade

So reads a 2016 report by the World Bank titled Connecting to Compete 2016: Trade Logistics in the Global Economy. The report features the Logistics Performance Index, which ranks Germany as the world champion in logistics. The country scores even higher than it did the last time it topped the index, two years ago.

In today’s interconnected and interdependent global economy, where consumers and citizens benefit from the global flow of goods, we need to collectively ensure that all parts and pillars across the globe can carry the heavy loads coming through the supply chain.


Logistics Performance global rankings 2016


The path to prosperity

Logistics is the key enabler of the world’s supply chains, which bring resources, seeds, fertilizers, materials, parts, machinery and equipment to farms and factories, as well as goods to shops, supermarkets and households.

Without logistics, today’s global procurement, manufacturing and distribution would not exist. Logistics connect sellers and buyers across the globe and provide companies with access to domestic and international markets. Related services influence the cost of goods and determine the competitiveness of economies. Their integration in global trade and value chains adds value to the worldwide networks of procurement, production and distribution so important for job creation, national economic development and wealth.

In short, when logistics function as they should, they are the basis upon which economies are built.

In the top 30 of the Logistics Performance Index we find 22 OECD countries and 14 members of the European Union. China moved from 28 in 2014 to 27 in 2016. India, currently the world’s fastest-growing large economy, did not make its way into the top 30 this time but has jumped 19 places to rank at number 38.

Strong nations depend on and benefit from buying and selling in foreign countries. Competition is what drives them, collaboration is what helps a nation to capture its full potential.


Asia rising

Globalization, logistics and trade have had a significant impact on global wealth levels. In 2013, the Economist wrote that in 20 years nearly 1 billion people had been taken out of extreme poverty. In 2015, the World Bank announced that global poverty was likely to fall below 10% for the first time.

This reflected the entry of China, India and other developing countries into the global procurement, manufacturing and distribution system, as increasingly powerful players in the world economy. Still, many developing countries remain on the margins of world markets, requiring helping hands to improve their logistics capabilities.

Between 2007 and 2014 the gap between top and low performers was slowly shrinking – driven by the logistics sector’s continuous improvements in infrastructure and service quality, as well as customs clearance processes. In 2016, logistics performances converge at the top and the gap between high and low performers widens.


Landlocked logistics

How fast the picture can change. Take the Philippines: it ranked 44 in 2010 but has fallen to 71 in 2016. The drop is largely driven by two factors: transport-related infrastructure and the competence and quality of logistics services, including transport operators and customs brokers. The online publication Supply Chain Digital writes: “Stalwarts of the Philippines’ logistics industry have voiced concerns over a series of Bureau of Customs directives instigated in the past year.”

Logistically constrained countries – landlocked nations without direct access to the oceans and global waterways, for example – are regularly struggling with trade and transport facilitation and reforms. Beyond political will, the disadvantaged countries with weaker logistics (often today’s suppliers and definitely tomorrow’s potential customers) require and deserve attention and support from the international community.


Reliability over speed

In high-performing nations, slower global trade after the 2008 global financial crisis, as well as environmental concerns, create a pressured environment for the logistics industry. The sector – itself estimated to contribute 23% of total global greenhouse gas emissions – faces concerns over jobs, land use and urban planning. In the interests of economic inclusion and peace, all nations need to further advance trade and transportation facilitation, whether individually or collectively, while safeguarding the citizens against harmful activities.

According to the World Bank report, “supply chain reliability continues to be a major concern among traders and logistics providers”. And indeed, reliability is more important than speed. And critical for reliability is efficiency at the borders. The current global trend towards disintegration, such as Brexit or the erection of fences at the Hungarian border with Serbia and Croatia, are not helping.

In economies where infrastructure and skills are no longer the key concern, governments might need to invest more money and time in explaining to the citizens the benefits of trade and logistics.

This blog was originally posted on the World Economic Forum Agenda.

The world is building fences. Here’s why we should worry

Long forgotten seem the walls, fences and barbed wires at all borders. Therefore, the understanding of the benefits of open borders might be fading. Of course, with terrorist attacks and waves of migrants concerns are rising. However, I wish that we are mindful and clear about the effectiveness, consequences and cost of the new global disintegration tendencies.

Fences

In December 2015, the BBC wrote: “EU border security becomes new mantra“. Not only Europe but larger parts of the world are going through a phase of increasing disintegration: the Brexit referendum, discussions about the exclusion of Greece from the Eurozone and the beginning of the construction of fences along the green borders of barrier-free Schengen.

Near Schengen, on 14 June 1985, the picturesque town in Luxembourg, five European countries signed the agreement which led to the creation of Europe’s borderless Schengen area. In light of mass flows of migrants seeking asylum in Europe, Hungary blocked migrants from onward travel to the rest of Europe and constructed a four-metre-tall fence along sections of the border with Serbia – a country not part of the Schengen area.

Also, Austria has begun building an anti-migrant barrier across the Brenner Pass at the Italian border. Putting an end to hope on one side and reducing fears on the other. However, it’s not only in Europe that countries are raising the bar. US presidential hopeful Donald Trump wants to build a wall at the Mexican border. Increasing fear of terrorists in the US has led to the reintroduction of a visa for “certain Europeans“.

EconomistBorders

Image: The Economist

Click here to see other regions in the Economist’s interactive map

The hidden cost of disintegration

What would be the impact of reestablishing barriers? Citizens would face long-forgotten burdens: the northern Europeans, for example, would experience long traffic jams at the Brenner Pass on the way to the holiday destinations in the south. Labour markets would also be affected: 1.7 million people cross European borders every day to get to work. Consumer prices would rise due to the forced slowdown and necessary adjustments along the supply chain. Waiting and inspection times at the borders would need to be factored into the prices of goods, as well as the changes required to the highly cost-optimized just-in-time concepts – largely applied in global manufacturing in the automotive industry – and the efficient goods supply out of the distribution centres. Many of the products made available by bilateral and multilateral agreements would disappear from supermarket shelves.

Disintegration would affect the competitive position too. Europe, for example, might find itself in a very disadvantaged situation given that Asia is continuing to integrate. What if TTP arrives and Schengen leaves? There might also be explosive geopolitical risk involved, with Crimea, Ukraine and new Chinese islands in the South China Sea heating up the debate. As new fences go up across Europe, what tensions could result from countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece being left more or less alone with new waves of migrants?

How effective are visas and border controls?

Looking back: how safe has the world been with more barriers? Did borders protect Italy from the onslaught in the 1970s of the Red Brigades, Spain from the ETA, Germany from the Red Army, and France from GIA? Did borders protect the US from attack on 9/11? How effective have been the high metal fences and walls, barbed wire, alarms, anti-vehicle ditches, watchtowers, automatic booby traps and minefields along the inner German border from 1945 to 1990? The threat often lies within: “Not one Paris attacker has been identified as a Syrian refugee”, Mashable wrote.

Tightening up security

The world has experienced decades of advancing global integration. Increasingly open borders and many trade and investment partnerships have strongly contributed to the prosperity and wealth of people and nations. International organizations and agencies have not only supported global growth but also established institutions in charge of dealing with the risks of reducing national barriers. Organizations have developed international ties and many platforms of collaboration to fight crime and terror have emerged.

Interpol – the International Criminal Police Organization – has strong links with Europol, the organization coordinating the local police forces across Europe. Within countries, ministries and agencies are increasingly working together. Germany, for example, has established the GTAZ – the Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre – an autonomous authority and co-operation platform used by 40 internal security agencies.

The private sector has launched initiatives to protect staff and assets against terrorism and other threats across the globe. Since the attacks of 9/11, security measures have been tightened. Today, individuals and companies are checked against the sanction lists of the US and Europe. Employees appearing on the lists are no longer allowed to be paid a salary, and companies are excluded from doing business. Though, as the Panama papers show, we have not yet closed all the back doors.

Battle on the internet

Social media helps terrorists organize itself and recruit new fighters. On the other hand, the FBI uses internet surveillance software like Carnivore to identify and stop attacks. Organizations such as the Search for International Terrorist Entities are scanning propaganda material and training manuals, and sharing the insights with other organizations. Technology trumps. The internet has the potential to flatten borders while reducing risks. The more people are active on the net, the better economic value can be extracted and (potential) terrorist activities monitored. Which also does not come without concerns and complexities – as the discussion between Apple and the FBI shows.

Governments have the obligation to protect citizens and the right to control borders. However, what are the effects of the potential disintegration on citizens, migrants and the economy? The Bertelsmann Foundation warns that reestablishing permanent border controls in Europe could produce losses of up to 1.4 trillion euros over 10 years.

We need to understand and be mindful of the impact of our decisions on the economy. All the same, should we apply economic reasoning to a decision on whether or not to offer a helping hand to people in severe need?

Image: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

This blog was originally posted on the World Economic Forum Agenda.

What does London’s new mayor mean for Brexit?

London has elected its first Muslim mayor. It’s a development that many see as reflective of the city’s tolerance and capacity to embrace differences. Will the election of the pro-trade and pro-Europe Sadiq Khan ultimately prove a crucial turning point in the Brexit debate?

LondonAndTheBrexit

The city’s citizens have good reason to vote for openness. London is built on trade. Trade has largely contributed to today’s wealth and the rise of many cities, regions and nations. Although trade growth has been moderate since the Global Financial Crises, reestablishing trade barriers might lead to significant negative effects.

The United Kingdom has its own currency and enjoys a high degree of economic sovereignty, which would hardly be enhanced by Brexit. Whether the wave of refugees seeking save harbour in the UK would slow down post-Brexit remains a question mark. What’s more certain is that trade barriers regularly increase the price of imported consumer goods, the prices of materials and parts to local production as well as industrial assets, and consequently the prices for goods produced in-country, for internal consumption or for export.

Four scenarios for Brexit

What would Brexit entail? Answering this means formulating the possible positions the UK could take after an exit from the European Union (EU). The scenarios include: (1) complete independence, (2) loose association with the EU, and (3) broad harmonization with the EU – the exit could also be structured in a gradual and staged way. Finally, (4) the UK could join another zone, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The choice between these options would determine the extent and nature of future trade barriers and the level of impact on society and economy within the UK, in respect to the exchanges of goods with EU members, with countries and blocs the EU has agreements with and finally with other blocs and nations.

If the UK stayed largely harmonized or associated with the EU, little change would occur. Under all the other scenarios, procurement, manufacturing and distribution networks would possibly need to be adjusted – immediately or over time, partially or even drastically.

How would Brexit impact business?

Looking at the cross-border movement of goods, the costs of trade to the economy as well as the impact on cost structures and consumer prices depend on the conditions in four key areas of trade facilitation: (1) border administration, (2) market access, (3) telecom and transport infrastructure, and (4) the business environment. Brexit would affect three of the four areas, namely border administration, market access and business environment.

Tightened border administration extends the time goods travel, slowing down deliveries while increasing the cost of transport. In addition, border controls reduce the reliability of the supply chain as the time required for possible inspections is unpredictable. In time-critical industries, this would force companies to hold buffer stocks and re-design logistics systems.

State investments in hyper-efficient customs clearance facilities, combining technology with smart procedures, can smooth away some of the negative effects. These approaches include pre-clearance processes based on pre-submitted customs information, or ensuring goods carry digitally and instantly retrievable information which can be used to let them clear customs while passing the border – probably a longer shot.

A curb on innovation?

The second area affected by the potential Brexit would be market access. Controls and regulations to structure which companies can sell and operate on the national market is often linked to the protection of local industries. This protection eases the pressure on local companies to innovate and drive serious programs to improve competitiveness.

Third, the business environment would be affected too: changes could occur in the area of investment policy and the hiring of foreign workers. The UK government would potentially need to negotiate trade terms and agreements with many partners – a costly process which can take years. In the meantime, the local and foreign companies operating in the UK might be faced with significant uncertainty.

In order to compensate for the cost and price increase, the UK government could consider tax cuts and subsidies to ease the pressure on consumers and manufacturers. Otherwise, the rising cost of production could trigger the gradual migration of UK manufacturing towards lower cost locations and increasing dissatisfaction among consumers and citizens.

Uncertainty, reduced competitiveness and job cuts

Uncertainty, reduced cost competitiveness and potential measures to protect local industries can lead to the gradual retreat of foreign players. Job losses and increasing dependency on imports would be the consequences. Over time, protected UK industries might fall behind the foreign players due to reduced cost optimization and innovation pressure and hence competitiveness.

In the short run, some sectors would be able to reap some short-term benefits. Logistics for example would be under pressure to redesign logistics concepts and build new distribution centers. However, this short-term revenue booster is to be considered economic waste. Instead of making the supply to the local economy and society easier and more fluid, investments would flow into efforts to cope with additional administration, regulation and procedures.

Logistics – in common with many sectors – would suffer in the end. For example, as the customers of the logistics and supply chain service providers put pressure back on suppliers, the effect would be shrinking margins. This is particularly challenging at a time when cash and financing needs for newly required investments would be well on the rise.

Referendum

It remains unclear what position the UK would take in the event of a Brexit. What is clear is that the additional layers of work and cost caused by tightened border administration, regulated market access and a deteriorating business environment would result in additional burdens and disadvantages for companies, and especially for consumers and citizens.

While initially, some industries would reap benefits, soon the negative repercussions risk spreading across all stakeholder groups – government, business and society.

Let’s hope that the election of Sadiq Khan will be followed by more enlightened public sentiment towards globalization, the importance of stress-tested trade blocs and the accomplishment of new agreements like the TPP and TTIP.

This blog was originally posted on the World Economic Forum Agenda.

Supply chain safety or the genetic code of everything

In a recent Forbes article we could read that the CDC estimates that approximately one in six Americans get sick each year from foodborne diseases, leading to roughly 3,000 deaths. This is well in line with the horrifying stories of the milk powder scandals and 300,000 thousand affected babies. The news about shortcomings and effects of irresponsible behavior in respect to the supply chain is taking its toll. Apparently is our knowledge about the origin and the risks of materials, parts and products limited. What can be done to better protect our lives?

Field.jpg large

Authenticity is the first step. In order to ensure authenticity, safety, security and quality of the food we eat and the products we use, there is not only the one solution needed but a bundle of protective measures. In addition to the obvious standards and efficient certification processes, we are in need of pragmatic laws and regulation. We also require reliable product tracing technology allowing the seamless follow through and detailed information about the products – about the score against the standard – and insights in the organisations involved; these can be transportation companies, traders and manufacturers. The effective protection requires data sharing, and maybe the need to establish an independent and efficient data market.

The ultimate protection of our health requires the genetic code of everything!

What we need is the full set of information of each and every product – the unique product fingerprint which can be compared with the database of safe practices. We need the measurement of truth, the proof of compliance with standards, laws and regulations. Imagine that all products we consider buying carried the QR code providing pre-checked information, including the origin, the quality and the manufacturing process. Imagine that through the internet every smart phone user would be able to retrieve the specific information about the meat we eat, the soap we love, and the paint used in the offices, the apartments, and the public buildings we are living in or we are visiting.

Total Supply Chain Visibility: a vision in the making?

Governments and organisations like the Consumer Goods Forum are working to develop and share best practices. The United States passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) to establish safety standards and requirements for children’s products. The supplier certifications accepted by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) aim at delivering safe food to citizens worldwide. The private sector plays its role too. Large companies help small farmers to fulfill requirements. There are around 700 global certification programmes. Probably too many, creating complexities which might slow down processes and cause unnecessary costs.

Laws and regulations have been put in place elevating traceability beyond just a value-added to the supply chain. In the European Union traceability has been obligatory for all businesses in the food chain since January 2005. In the United States of America, the Bioterrorism Act came into effect for larger companies in 2005 and for smaller players in 2006, with similar requirements regarding records to identify previous sources. Traceability becomes the new standard in the modern supply chain.

Most companies are mapping the parts of the supply chain under their control. However, the exercise needs to go beyond the borders of direct responsibility and control. We need visibility of the whole flow. Starting upstream at the mines and fields, going further along the various steps of manufacturing and assembling of products or the processing of food down to the buyers and subsequent cycles of usage. Unfortunately, in the eye of catastrophes such as the salmonella outbreaks companies sometimes appear ill-equipped to respond quickly.

With the new age of digitisation, with the emergence of sensors in almost everything – from electronics and vehicles to cloth and wallpaper governments, organisations and companies can gather and compile enormous quantities of data. More importantly the information can be transmitted to the internet where various applications can enrich, analyse, organise, and store the records. Through product identification, unique tracking numbers and labeling, we are able to link materials, parts, products and food back to specific data relating to the production, and distribution. Through the new technologies we have access to the entire cycle history. Held available in internet platforms, users can swiftly and easily retrieve this information by smart devices like phones, watches and other wearables. The proof of traceability might soon be the minimum standard for doing business in the digital age.

Where are the hurdles? Traditionally, individuals and companies struggle to exchange information and data. Furthermore, there are standardisation gaps and security concerns. Privacy protection is a challenge too. One solution might be a data market. Similar to the stock exchange this place of clear rules and supervision would allow to safely and swiftly exchange and monetise the data gathered or produced by the different parties. The data market would be an incentive to generate and share even more data.

There is much to gain!

Beyond our own individual safety, many opportunities lure in the world of the retrievable genetic code of everything. Players along the value chain, like raw material providers, suppliers, manufacturers and food processors can differentiate themselves from competition through visibility and an enlarged safety offer. Logistics and transportation companies can enhance their vertical knowledge and build new services around data management and the orchestration of the relationships along the supply and value chain. New services and players will emerge. TrueTag and CLEARthru are examples of this development.

Despite all technology and process innovation, we still need to act upon the new wealth of information and knowledge to protect ourselves. The responsibility for the health and wellbeing of the planet and society will stay with us and the many other consumers and buyers everywhere on the globe. It is up to us all to accept or reject. Finally: as most tracing technology has been available for so long, we might wish to consider to push a bit harder on the implementation and utilisation.

Hurdles ahead along the “New Silk Road”

In October 2012, Wang Jisi – professor at Beijing University – urged China to re-open its ancient commercial trade routes with the West. In 2013, China’s President, Xi Jinping proposed to its neighbors the “One Road, One Belt” initiative. China’s aim? To achieve $2.5tn in additional annual trade with the nations along the proposed routes over the next 10 years.

Trade_SilkRoad

What is the current state of the project and how likely is it to succeed?

The private sector, for one, has started reinforcing the connectivity between the East and the West. In 2011, supply chain operator DB Schenker started weekly trains between China and Germany. It carried 40,000 TEU containers (20 foot equivalent unit) from 2012 to 2014.

In 2015, the Port of Rotterdam welcomed its first containers by rail from China. This route shortens the delivery time of goods from around 60 days by sea to about 14 days by land. In the future, trains from Chongqing in China to Duisburg in Germany transiting 10,800 km (6,700 miles) are expected to reduce delivery time to 10 days. Companies such as Hewlett Packard are connecting European customers with the factories in China through the new route. Returning containers are filled, for example, with western luxury cars.

The result is that the modern caravan has started rolling. Thus, the “New Silk Road” development project – which embraces an area that is home to about 70 per cent of the world’s population, produces about 55 per cent of global GDP and has about 75 per cent of known energy reserves – has been taken its first steps. Of course, challenges remain.

The ambition requires efficient and effective collaboration between the 40 countries located alongside the historic silk routes, both those that went overland from China to Europe and those that went by sea. China has taken the initiative to start aligning the participants, signing partnership agreements related to the initiative from 2013 onward with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The project requires significant funding – an estimated $8tn between 2010 and 2020 alone. The China government announced several commitments including a $40bn Silk Road Fund to be focused on projects in the Central Asia region, a $50bn Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and a $10bn BRICS-led New Development Bank. Some sources suggest that Beijing is prepared to support the projects to the tune of between $160bn to $300bn. The China Development Bank and the Maritime Silk Road Bank are set to reinforce such support.

The New Silk Road project needs to overcome technical and regulatory challenges. The trains require at least two changes of gauge – as China and Europe use the standard of 1435 mm gauge while Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan use the broad gauge of 1520 mm. Many borders need to be crossed. Customs clearance processes need to be standardised – advanced information technology and digitisation might help. Ideally, the New Silk Road will become a free-trade corridor.

Each country needs to understand what to contribute, such as what infrastructure and policies to launch, how to finance the initiative and what benefits to be expected from the investments. A well-designed business model which features a plan outlining how the Silk Road will work is critical to ensure that additional value – new businesses, new industries and new jobs – is created along the entire value chain and not merely at both ends (China and Europe).

Imbalances in economic strength and the flows of goods – China exports are traditionally stronger than those of most of its trading partners – and seasonality like slow months and peaks need to be factored in the model.

The success of the New Silk Road depends as well on clear governance rules and mechanisms. This includes the answer to the question of whether this project requires an independent organisation or can handle strategic decision-making and dispute resolution in a bilateral or multilateral way.

The incentive to get this right is huge. The participating countries will be able to tap in a new source of growth and need to balance spending with progress. Currently, China is carrying the lion share of the investment. In return, Asia’s leading economy expects significant stimulus for its market and favourable ties with countries along the belt.

The private sector will leverage the potential and increase investments proportional with the improvements in infrastructure and processes. If successful, the reboot of the ancient Silk Road will without doubt bring additional growth opportunities to business and nations, and provide also better access to no less than 66 per cent of the world’s middle class, which is expected to live in China by 2030.

Other sources:
ECFR. (2015). One Belt, One Road: China’s Great Leap Outward. European Council on Foreign Affairs

This article was first published in The Financial Times.

Author: Wolfgang Lehmacher is head of supply chain and transport industry at the World Economic Forum. Victor Padilla-Taylor is community lead, supply chain and transport at the World Economic Forum.

Image: Kayakers take in the last of the day’s light as they paddle past a ship anchored off Cape Town. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.